With most housing providers having a diverse selection of business applications running across their various operations, particularly when they have a ‘best of breed’ approach to the adoption of new technologies, Housing Technology interviewed a number of experts on how straight-through processing could improve housing providers’ operations and services to tenants.
For many housing providers, individual applications areas such as mobile, housing management and finance have been successfully implemented. The next step is what can be termed straight-through processing (STP). This is the concept that not only do all of the disparate technologies integrate with one another, but more importantly, that an initial tenant enquiry or repairs request, for example, can pass seamlessly to all relevant parts of a housing provider (and its contractors) without the need for re-keying data or manual intervention. Not only should this reduce costs and improve the accuracy of housing providers’ data, it should also dramatically improve the quality and speed of service for their tenants.
STP across the board?
Few companies in any business sector have achieved genuine STP across all of their operations; there are always likely to be ‘outliers’ where the time and resources needed to bring them into the STP fold outweigh the advantages of doing so. At the same time, the benefits of STP accrue exponentially as more applications can talk to each other.
Elizabeth Sipiere, the chief executive officer of Valueworks, said, “It’s unrealistic to expect to achieve STP across all areas of a housing provider’s operations due to the number of systems that they typically have. However, from a finance perspective, we would certainly expect everything to be automated and seamlessly integrated, from placing an order with a supplier, through importing invoices into a finance system, to outputting management reports.”
Chris Berry, a director at Liquid Voice, said, “Integration has long been the sticking point in delivering seamless end-to-end processing of customer requirements within housing, principally because of the breadth of disparate systems within any given environment. But with most IT suppliers offering a similar portfolio of applications, in truth, the problems are more due to competitive issues between them, rather than any issues with technology or skill-sets.”
Considering STP from the well-established enterprise resource planning (ERP) perspective, Paul Swannell, the sales manager for social housing in Ciber UK’s SAP Practice, added, “If an ERP approach is taken to deploying an integrated business platform, STP is delivered ‘as standard’, reflecting the fundamental nature of the technology. In this case, the scope of STP is limited only by the scope of the ERP platform.”
Examples of STP
As mentioned earlier, in an ideal world of STP a repairs request, for example, would be able to flow seamlessly to all relevant parts of a housing provider’s operations without the need for re-keying data or manual interventions, but what are the more realistic scenarios?
Chris Potter, director of Uniclass for ROCC Computers, explained, “The housing repairs process is a good example of STP. In a responsive repairs scenario, the tenant raises the repairs request, asset and resource information is collated, scheduled and actioned, the service is then delivered and customer satisfaction and costing is recorded and analysed. In both planned and cyclical maintenance, the process is fairly similar, except the start point is usually the asset, rather than the tenant. It is basically a single process, from the repair request being raised to the customer satisfaction with the job being measured.”
Helen Rogers, Netcall’s product manager, said, “Activities such as changes in tenant circumstances or data become so much more efficient and accurate as information entered only once, thus avoiding the need for ‘double keying’ which can be frustrating for system users, and information and records are therefore consistent across all systems.”
Valueworks’ Sipiere added, “We are seeing the best-in-class housing providers automating everything from the tenant call through the repair to the invoice payment. And in line with the best STP in other sectors, they are starting to manage these aspects of the business on an exception basis – not reviewing every transaction, but only those with some reason to be noted as exceptions. In many cases, even exceptions might be passed through to enable operational efficiency on the job, with the exception triggering a review to prevent a recurrence of such an exception.”
How to achieve STP
Apart from the cultural implications and issues around STP, the principal barriers to STP seem to around data fields or data attributes differing between applications, and providing the means for the different applications to transfer data between them.
ROCC Computers’ Potter explained, “The key to achieving STP is two-fold; first planning and structuring the organisation’s ‘open data’ strategy and, secondly, ensuring the relevant systems can be integrated to allow the process to flow seamlessly. The data pools generally cover three key areas: finance, people and property. The data pool is the common point in the communications between all the process partners, such as housing providers, tenants, sub-contractors, suppliers and regulators, and ensures the information is synchronised and accessible to everyone in a common, fast and accurate manner.”
Swannell from Ciber UK’s SAP Practice added, “By following an ERP approach, STP becomes a natural by-product of what is essentially an innately integrated process landscape. Without ERP, and especially without genuine single-vendor ERP platforms, the most fundamental barrier to STP is the fact that each application typically uses a different data hierarchy, meaning certain types of record or attribute simply don’t exist or are inconsistent across discrete processes.”
Sophie Bell, an account manager for Civica, said, “STP is partly a technology challenge and a processes change, but creating a STP solution also requires organisations to sometimes adapt how they view technology deployment. The legacy method consists of standalone and often on-premise applications that are stitched together into STP. This can cause additional challenges when multiple IT suppliers are not setup to work well together or in some case are even rivals. From a development standpoint, an end customer can end up trapped between antithetical technology approaches or standards differences.”
What are the advantages of STP?
Different departments within a housing provider are likely to have widely varying views on what constitutes ‘good STP’; the finance department will be more concerned with seamlessly processing invoices from inception to final settlement, CRM teams may be more interested in using STP for ‘first-time fix’ for tenant enquiries, and asset and property managers might want to use STP for their planned maintenance programmes. Each of these scenarios is valid; the challenge for housing providers is to determine the scope of their STP ambitions, and consequent advantages, balanced against the time and resources needed to achieve them cost-effectively.
Liquid Voice’s Berry said, “A lack of inter-departmental communication is a huge factor in the inefficiencies seen within the public sector and as a by-product, it is one of the main contributors in reduced customer experience. Getting this right has no end of benefits which include housing providers benefitting from massive improvements in efficiency, reducing costs and saving time. In addition, tenants can experience an uplift in service through a reduction in time to process requirements. Furthermore, STP can potentially remove the need for continual IT development processes and support, especially in an outsourced engagement.”
Bell from Civica explained, “STP offers many advantages for housing providers which start with an integrated workflow to ensure that processes are consistently followed and also that exceptions are not lost in the system. For tenants, a simple thing such as case notes being seamlessly passed around the organisation as calls are moved between departments dramatically improves the customer experience.”
Looking beyond a housing provider’s internal operations and its tenants, Netcall’s Rogers added, “STP enables processes which are outsourced to contractors to be handled and tracked more effectively, such as staff carrying out repairs, cyclical maintenance, ASB visits all have pertinent information to hand and available on a smart phone or tablet, at the same time as giving contractors the capability to login to the housing provider’s system via a portal so that they can log the progress of their tasks, resulting in the logging of a completed repair task automatically setting off the financial processes related to that task.”
New technologies vs. new processes
The technologies necessary to achieve STP, such as middleware, APIs and integration tools, naturally exist already and are widely available. However, these are merely the foundation for the business and operational processes sitting on top of them, combined with a concerted shift in a housing provider’s culture.
As ROCC Computers’ Potter explained, “Both technology and new processes are important in achieving STP. The processes should have been computerised using mobile and web technologies, which allow data to be exchanged and shared, and different parties to be plugged in and connected to the process. All systems in the process should have open APIs, which allow real-time updates to all the data sources.”
From the perspective of new processes, Rogers from Netcall said, “Typically, the relevant processes will already exist, but STP is about streamlining those processes to improve efficiency and reduce operational costs. Introducing new technology is what’s enabling housing providers to make the changes needed to realise the full benefits of STP.”
Swannell from Ciber UK’s SAP Practice added, “In the context of an ERP approach, STP is not a new technology; it is an excellent illustration of the benefits delivered by integrated processes based upon centralised common data structures.”
It is highly likely that more and more housing providers will start to look at their IT estates in conjunction with their business processes to assess where STP can deliver the greatest benefit, beginning perhaps with a ‘bite-sized’ approach that focuses on linking only two or three applications at first, based on a common data hierarchy, before joining up the dot across the rest of the organisation.
Housing Technology would like to thanks Paul Swannell (Ciber UK), Sophie Bell (Civica), Chris Berry (Liquid Voice), Helen Rogers (Netcall), Chris Potter (ROCC Computers) and Elizabeth Sipiere (Valueworks) for contributing to this article.